Portrait photography

What is butterfly lighting? How to use it in portrait photography

Fashion aficionados and photography enthusiasts both have one thing in common – they love the look of studio lighting. Getting there on your own land is easy; Butterfly portrait lighting is one of the best kept secrets in the industry, and it makes any model look fabulous.

What is a butterfly lighting pattern and how can you use this type of arrangement in your work? Read on to learn how to step up the drama with a butterfly lighting setup: lights, camera, action.

Butterfly lighting: definition and technique

What exactly is butterfly lighting? What makes it unique?

Butterfly lighting, by definition, rushes to the face directly above, often a single touch complemented by reflectors or bouncy cards. It is usually a dramatic and understated type of arrangement meant to keep the eyes on the model.

A butterfly lighting scheme.

Unlike Rembrandt portraits, both sides of the face receive the same treatment and benefit from the same lighting intensity. The idea is to emphasize the symmetry, beauty and purity of the face.

This light source can vary widely, ranging from extremely diffuse wide sources to extremely intense direct sunlight. The quality of the light matters less than how it is cast over the model, lighting up her entire face.


As you can see, a butterfly lighting pattern draws attention to the forehead, cheekbones, hollows in each contour, mouth, and chin, while minimizing everything below – the camera doesn’t still need to add ten pounds, and this approach is living proof.

Butterfly portrait lighting is also famous for another extremely desirable benefit – catchlight, also known as eye light.

Catchlight is a term used to describe tall, beautiful, and reflected in the subject’s eyes. Due to the placement of a butterfly light relative to where the photographer usually stands, butterfly lighting is a technique that naturally produces a lot of eye light.

There are many theories as to the origin of the name – some suggest this is due to the butterfly “shape” this type of configuration creates on the face, but these claims are dubious at best. For now, let’s focus on what really matters: how to use butterfly lighting to create an amazing portrait.

How to photograph with butterfly lighting: a tutorial and best practices

a photo studio with a butterfly lighting setup

To make a butterfly-style portrait, you will need a few things:

  • A camera
  • A dark room or any closed “studio” area
  • A brilliant key light; a flash, the sun or whatever else you have on hand
  • A safe and secure way to hold the light in place – a light stand, C-stand, or work stand are all solid choices
  • A face to photograph

Yes, that’s a short list, part of which makes butterfly lighting such a versatile portrait style. Once you have put the pieces of this puzzle together, you are ready to start working on it.

How to create a butterfly lighting setup

First and foremost: have your model stand or sit. It is much easier to shape the light when you have your reference source right in front of you.

Place your stand just in front of your model or slightly to the side if you are using a stand with a gobo arm or some other way to shift the head.

If you are using an extremely bright light, we recommend that you diffuse it with a softbox, especially if you are just starting out. Instead of a softbox, you can also just stream the source directly, as long as you’re not using a light that generates a lot of heat.

A woman pictured with a butterfly above her head.

At this point you will need to use your gut to assess what is in front of you. It’s a simple setup; As with any minimal lighting style, tailoring it to the perfect fit is the best way to capitalize on the individual flavor of beauty your subject brings to the table.

Some faces are soft and warm; others are angular and pointed. In the first case, you can opt for diffuse key light, slightly below average. The latter might call the opposite, something closer to the old-school movies and portraits that made butterfly lighting such a sensation in the first place. It’s about recognizing what makes your subject shine and using the key to highlighting all of their best qualities.

Take a look through the viewfinder, take a few light meter readings, and readjust if necessary. If the look is too bold for your liking, you can use an anti-bounce card, reflector, or even a regular mirror to help fill in those awkward dark spots.

Butterfly Lighting Photography: Tips for Amazing Studio-Style Portraits

The lighting of butterflies, in principle, can seem deceptively simple. The magic really is in the execution, and the more you practice, the more butterfly lighting ideas you will likely get.

We will conclude with some tips, tricks and various reminders for the butterfly photographer on a mission:

  • Golden hour is the rush hour for natural butterfly lighting. It’s low in the sky, the perfect angle for a no-gear butterfly portrait anywhere in town. This fact is valid for both indoor and outdoor butterfly photography. Take the time, do it at home, take it out on the town, and thank us later.
  • You are free to add additional lights if you are shooting with strobes or other photographic lights. As long as the central butterfly key light is your most intense source, you’ll get the look, albeit in a more commercial, high-key style that many butterfly photographers prefer.
  • Lenses with a longer focal length are particularly suitable for this style of photography. They isolate the subject, capturing a moment in time in an authentic way. A larger lens comically distorts the face, spoiling everything this style of shooting exists to deify.

Aside from these tips and our spiel above, there are a few rules to follow in butterfly lighting photography.

With a butterfly light, every week is fashion week

It is not difficult to make a beautiful face shine. Give your model the royal treatment with a butterfly lighting setup; they only take a few minutes to organize, delivering production value and lots of glitter without much effort.

Butterfly lighting is one of the most versatile basic lighting techniques in the artist’s lexicon. Glamor light is the ideal solution when you are desperately looking for something new on the set; just throw one in, turn it on and you’re good to go.

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